Sunday 1 January 2023

My Top 50 TV Shows of 2022 (and Where to Find Them), Part 2

Part 1 of this list can be found here.

Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special (Netflix)
Wasn't expecting this to morph into a wake-cum-Late Review, with Sandler in the Tom Paulin role, and Molly Shannon as Allison Pearson. (Even Chappelle appears moved, and thus more approachable than he has for several years.) As for the main event, which is visibly not the event anybody intended it to be at the time of recording: a front row seat to watch a singular comic sensibility grappling with his own mortality, and proof it is still possible for a middle-aged white comedian to go gracefully into the light. I love the idea that Macdonald should have spent his last summer on this Earth coming up with jokes about the 1993 motion picture Alive. There are many worse ways for a fellow to fritter away his allotted time. (Looking at you, Gervais.)

24. Killing It S1 (E4; All4)
Slightly squandered amid the summer schedules, this was nevertheless 2022’s most leftfield set-up, introducing several ragged-trousered Floridians competing in a state-sponsored snake-killing contest as the 2016 election looms. Its aptly serpentine plot draws out the myriad absurdities and iniquities baked into the gig economy, coming on like Breaking Bad with jokes and an economics degree.

23. My Next Guest Needs No Introduction S4 (Netflix)
The series proper was fine - Billie Eilish and her brother come over as absolute sweethearts, and you get some indication of how weird Will Smith was acting just before Oscar night. But the recent one-off special with Volodymyr Zelenskyy felt like event television, not least for the singularity of its staging. Netflix and Letterman: so powerful they can even pause armed conflict in the heart of Europe.

22. Zen Motoring S1 (BBC3; iPlayer)
A Covid hangover - in a good way. A retired battle rapper (writer-star Ivan Battaliero-Owen) gives the gentlest voice to scenes from his daily commute, as observed from a camera fixed to his car dashboard. Over six episodes, this YouTube-originated comedy creates its own cherishably genial world: 8 Mile redirected by John Shuttleworth.

21. The Last Movie Stars (Sky Documentary; Now TV)
TV: now doing movies better than the movies themselves. Whenever I felt inclined to pick a fight with the thesis encoded in the title, another clip of a great lost Newman/Woodward project popped up, artfully crafted, fine-grained, better looking than 99% of the dross we have to sit through in the modern multiplex, and thereby obliging me to swallow my own reservations. (Their films may not have all succeeded artistically or commercially, but the majority of them at least allowed these stars to act like adults and retain some measure of dignity.) But the show's at least as interested in Newman and Woodward as human beings, which is the real knockout - and the celebrity commentators Ethan Hawke gathers all seem to be feeling their way towards the same questions: how do we define a great career, a great life, and when we recognise one, how do we drag ourselves up anywhere near there? Television fashioned with obvious love and real cinephile passion, even before Scorsese appears.

20. Ramy S2 (Channel 4; All4)
Everything that was excellent and distinctive about the first season - but now with bonus Mahershala Ali.

19. Search Party S5 (iPlayer)
Bowed out in typically tart fashion, found a new UK home after several years in the wilderness (on iPlayer from today; S1 airs on BBC3 tomorrow), and left me marvelling at its creators' tonal mastery, following a single, uninterrupted line through to a properly satisfying conclusion. (Any zigzags, wobbles and switchbacks were entirely those of its characters.) In its low-key way, a major narrative achievement.

18. Shining Vale S1 (Starz via Prime Video)
People loved Bad Sisters, but this was the Sharon Horgan show I most enjoyed in 2022: a gleefully rude, irreverent update of the haunted-house set-up, with expert comic performers Courteney Cox and Greg Kinnear on fine form as a couple whose marriage is fraying even before spooks enter the picture. Second season incoming.

17. What We Do in the Shadows S4 (Disney+)
It's TV's best set, isn't it? Like a Goth's idea of Pat Sharp's Funhouse. Who wouldn't want to spend twenty minutes every week running around that?

16. Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing S5 & Christmas Special (BBC2; iPlayer)
Fresh air, wildly good company, passing escape from the madness of modern Britain – and, most precious of all, the sight of two sixtysomething blokes choosing joy wherever the day takes them. Prescribe episode five on the NHS as a cure for depression.

15. Cunk on Earth (BBC2; iPlayer)
Previous Cunks were reliably amusing, but the writing went up a level or six here. Every other line was gold; it was comedy touched by the hand of poetry. (Off the top of my head: Berlin Wall as "a divorce made of bricks".) All joking aside, I genuinely learnt a thing or two from most of these episodes - and I became more involved in how Cunk's interviews get set up than I ever was in Nathan Fielder's chicanery.

14. Sherwood (BBC1; iPlayer)
Sort of amazing that one of 2022's most compelling (and most watched) dramas should have concerned schisms in a Nottinghamshire mining community. But writer James Graham (my preferred Jack Thorne) meshed the politics with a crafty whodunnit, and the odd scene that announced Sherwood as both a) the work of an individual penhand, and b) defiantly British in its concerns. It's the only one of this year's high-profile murder-mysteries in which you can witness Lesley Manville schooling David Morrissey in the rules of Pointless.

13. The Kids in the Hall S1 (Prime Video)
Comeback of the year, in many ways. (No news of a second season, alas.)

12. Stewart Lee: Snowflake/Tornado (BBC2; iPlayer)
"That never got a laugh nine years ago. But I kept it in." If you're going to be petty (and sensitive), be transcendentally petty (and sensitive). Even the curmudgeonly stage construct of "Stewart Lee, world's greatest living stand-up" can't entirely conceal his glee at being back in front of a live audience after the past two years.

11. We Own This City (Sky Atlantic; Now TV)
Amid the discourse around copaganda television, David Simon stands as a fascinating, complicating presence. He still believes in good policing (and fully-funded policing); equally, though, he's not blind to the systemic rot and human frailty that makes good policing - even competent policing - difficult to achieve. We Own This City works from an exceptionally convoluted narrative line - it's not a show you can check your phone during, because the details matter - but its boldly ricocheting structure does in its own way help to describe the chaos unleashed on Baltimore's streets by the Gun Trace Task Force: for once in a police procedural, anything goes, and little of the usual Dick Wolf cause/effect, crime/punishment linear continuity applies until those investigating start to assemble a substantial case for the prosecution.

It helps that Simon and series director Reinaldo Marcus Green share a strong eye for anchoring actors and personalities. This is the best use yet of Jon Bernthal's meathead charisma, effortlessly shredding the mythology of the "cowboy cop" via a real character who's also just about the last person you'd trust with a badge and a gun, especially when money and power enter his field of vision. Josh Charles, cold as ice, overhauls his preppy screen persona; Jamie Hector is quietly heartbreaking as GTTF collateral damage; and there's much to cheer further down the cast list (Wunmi Mosaku's excellent face! Dagmara Dominczyk and her flute! Treat Williams, bringing strong Prince of the City vibes!). Yet again in a Simon show, ensemble becomes community, obliged to police itself one way or another; We Own This City represents one of its creator's most persuasive and compelling post-Wire endeavours.

10. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver S9 (Sky Comedy; Now TV)
One of the great joys of post-Trump Last Week Tonight: it feels relaxed enough to extend the scope of its investigations beyond US borders. This year's run featured exceptionally clear-eyed overviews of the British royals and FIFA - and kept saying the things more compromised journalists can't or won't. With jokes!

9. The Kingdom: Exodus (MUBI)
Rather than go to therapy, some men would rather go back to the series they jokingly abandoned 25 years ago, and blow it all decisively to hell. As with Twin Peaks: The Return, as great an influence here as Twin Peaks was on The Kingdom 1 & 2 ("Everything is stolen"), the sap in me wishes we could have arrived at a happier ending than we did - four of the five new episodes at least float that as a possibility - but that we got an ending, however apocalyptic, suggests von Trier now recognises there is value in closure. The newcomers slot into this world seamlessly, the soap is as enjoyably caustic as ever, and von Trier bequeaths TV its great cinematic image of 2022: Udo Kier's massive head [above], drowning in a lake of his own tears.

8. Slow Horses S1/2 (Apple TV+)
Gary Oldman: I forgive you for Darkest Hour.

7. Hacks S2 (Prime Video)
That's entertainment. (Again: why can't American movies give us this?)

6. The Love Box in Your Living Room (BBC2; iPlayer)
"Das Archers"; Ted Watershed; Harry Enfield's Brian Walden impersonation (which briefly feels like the raison d'être of the show entire); Enfield's Boris Johnson impersonation (which - needless to say - craps from some height on Kenneth Branagh's Boris Johnson impersonation); all the stuff on the Birt era (which feels personal); Simon Greenall's posture as Paxman; the gleeful Blair, Murdoch and Gervais-bashing; the growing thought there might well have been an extra half-hour of deleted scenes, and that most of those might have been equally worthy of the final cut. The best sustained Adam Curtis pastiche yet, a sincere expression of affection for the BBC that doesn't overlook its flaws and faults, and an indication that the Craig-era Bond films would have been a whole lot livelier had Daniel Kleinman been allowed to oversee entire features, and not just their brilliant credits.

5. Muhammad Ali (BBC2; iPlayer)
Ken Burns (The Civil War), his daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon splice expert talking heads into irresistible archive footage of a subject born to be filmed - every bit as much a star outside the ring as he was inside it. The fights are covered in exhilarating depth, extending to blow-by-blow analysis of Ali’s evolving technique; we’re shown exactly what the judges were marking. Yet what impresses most is the fond but unflinching portrait of Ali the man: proof you can profile the greatest, without overlooking their many complications and failings.

4. Andy Warhol’s America (BBC2; iPlayer)
Producer-director Francis Whately mixes Factory survivors, amused/bemused onlookers and exhilarating soundtrack cues to paint a dynamic, multifaceted portrait of a self-made icon. The artworks retain their fascination – well, the soup cans do; the Marilyns I’m still not so sold on – but this three-parter is most notable for digging into its subject’s singular personality. The Warhol encountered here has a sick kid’s sensitivity, an immigrant’s work ethic, a gossip’s tongue, a showman’s brashness, and the opportunistic shamelessness of a latter-day influencer. He contains multitudes, and contradicts himself at every turn. In some way, Andy Warhol was America.

3. This is Going to Hurt (BBC1; iPlayer)
The first post-lockdown prime-time drama to feel as fully realised as the best pre-lockdown programming, powered as it was by Adam Kay’s writing, another superlative Ben Whishaw performance and incisive direction from Lucy Forbes and Tom Kingsley. A year on, I still hope it's just a warning, and not an elegy.

2. Better Call Saul S6 (Netflix)
One of the streaming era’s greatest and rarest achievements: a show that didn’t outstay its welcome by a single minute, episode or season.

1. Russia 1985-99: TraumaZone (iPlayer)
Harry and Paul: spoof this. For once, Adam Curtis gets out of the way of his own story/ies; the result is Curtis's most fascinating project for some while. Astonishing how much context, information and emotion can be drawn from raw footage alone - that much of this raw footage is astonishing in itself helps, of course, but Curtis's juxtapositions are just as revealing and mindboggling. This is why we need archives, archivists and a fully funded, free-ranging BBC News team - it's also a forceful argument for why we need Adam Curtis, and a powerful (not to mention timely) expression of sympathy for the Russian people, observed looking on in horror as their country gets divided up, hollowed out and sold down the river by murderously indifferent leadership. Thank goodness nothing like this could happen here in the United Kingdom hahahahahahahahahahahahahahah.

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